On a bright, crisp winter’s day in Sydney, Australia, a photo shoot is taking place in the studio of Co Partnership. Mischief hangs in the air as owners Zoe Green, 42, and Max Harkness, 37, banter and laugh with some of their staff while trying to act natural for the camera. A few dirty jokes later, and it’s all finished. Green and Harkness return to their desks in the second studio they’ve expanded into. It’s shared with an architectural firm in a small building of creatives in the now überhip inner-city enclave of Surry Hills.
“We’re growing so fast,” Green says. On the walls behind her, dozens of bottles of alcohol line the shelves. She’s not a big drinker (“It makes me fall asleep”), unlike Harkness—her partner in business and in life—but it’s not unlikely to catch Green enjoying a glass of wine or craft beer at a local bar with her colleagues at the end of the workweek. Instead, these bottles are a showcase of the ten-member company’s work. As a branding and packaging agency specializing in premium alcohol, Co Partnership’s clients include local and global wine, beer and spirits producers.
It’s familiar territory for Harkness, who grew up in the southern city of Adelaide, Australia, surrounded by some of the country’s biggest and most famous wine-producing regions. As a teenager, Harkness spent most weekends with his family going to vineyards and festivals thrown on the front lawns of wineries. “Everyone from Adelaide has this generic, really good knowledge of wine,” Green explains. “They’re just born with it.” For Harkness, it also helped that his mother, Barbara Harkness, ran her own business naming wine brands and designing wine labels, including the world-famous Yellow Tail brand and its iconic image of a jumping wallaby.
Ten thousand miles away in the United Kingdom, amid the brick buildings and bustling streets of London, Green had fallen in love with the city she grew up in. “I’d go to Camden Town, where my nan lived, and see punk rockers and Rastafarians and skinheads and think, ‘Who are these people? They’re amazing!’” she recalls. “I loved my city from the minute I could see it for what it was: edgy and different. There’s a real anarchy about London.”
Soon after starting her design degree at the Camberwell College of Arts, she became entranced with London’s underground music scene. By the time she completed her studies, she started designing record labels, album covers, nightclub identities and band logos outside of the hours she worked as a receptionist at a design studio. Not long after colleagues noticed her jumping on the computers after work, she was offered a junior designer role. But five years later, she knew she’d never get the type of exciting, challenging briefs that she had received from the music industry with a portfolio full of projects for food brands, so she spent every weekend for the next nine months designing hypothetical projects. After sending her new portfolio out, she got three job offers in three weeks and accepted a position at Lewis Moberly, one of London’s leading branding and packaging agencies whose clients include Moet & Chandon and Bollinger.
Enter Harkness, who joined the agency about three years later after traveling to London following a relationship bust-up. While he had a childhood of happy memories, Harkness was excited to explore other cities outside his hometown, where skateboarding had been a big part of his life. He says, “I lived and breathed it. Just the individual creativeness of it—it’s technical and it’s free.” After switching out of a strict private high school and completing a foundation course in graphic design in Adelaide, he moved to Sydney and got a job working for a wine label printer, which was followed by a four-year stint as a production and mock-up artist for an agency working with fast-moving consumer goods. “I’d print these really high-end mock-ups by hand,” he recalls. “I’d mix the inks by hand, print them by hand and assemble them by hand. It really gave me a good understanding of print techniques.” His experience at these two firms would pave the way for what was to come. “The printer and mock-up labels are a key piece of Co Partnership’s DNA, in the way that we think about the printing and the technical capabilities and challenges before we start designing,” Green elaborates.
Harkness and Green worked together at Lewis Moberly for six months before the economic crisis took hold of their jobs. It was only then that they started seeing each other, bonding over their affection for edgy subcultures and their passion for hip-hop music (“At the moment, we can’t get enough of Kendrick Lamar,” says Green). Harkness’s mom had wound down her business, and the pair—who’d moved to Sydney by then—used her industry contacts to get new work. After landing a big wine client, they officially started Co Partnership in 2011.
It was a rough beginning; a year in, Co Partnership was owed $80,000 when its biggest client went broke. But from out of the wreckage, one of its earliest designs survived: The Hidden Sea, an existing wine brand in need of a redesign. So Harkness and Green did what they do best and delved deep into the stories behind the product, bringing it to life on the bottle. Millions of years ago, Australia’s Limestone Coast was submerged underwater, and marine fossils now lie buried in the region, contributing to the fertile soil that helps produce the wine. Magnificently, these include whale fossils. Co Partnership engaged New York–based Jon Contino to illustrate the majestic creature on the new label. Not stopping there, the pair screen printed the illustration on the bottle to make it feel “textural, like the [limestone] ground.” Justin Moran, director of sales for Limestone Coast Wines, which acquired the vineyard and has worked with Co Partnership on many projects, describes the studio’s work as well thought out, beautiful and engaging. “The key thing that sets [Green, Harkness and their team] apart is the back research they do in the category, asking who the target consumer is and how the story will resonate before they start their design,” he says. “They take care in the early stages and may even challenge the brand owners’ thinking to make sure everything is aligned.”
Indeed, challenging predictable thinking is the thing that Harkness and Green enjoy most about their work. It’s something Green first learned to do while working at Lewis Moberly. “It was a creative-led agency, and I’d just come from a client-led agency where a client would say, ‘I don’t like that color; make it blue,’ and the agency would just change it without asking any questions,” she says. “At Lewis Moberly, [the creative director is] very forthcoming in asking the client, ‘Why?’ They ask the right questions, they put their neck on the line, they really challenge the client to get the best result—it was the first time I’d seen an agency behave so ballsy.”
Greg Logan, a director at Southern Wild Distillery in Tasmania, worked closely with Co Partnership on the branding and packaging of Dasher + Fisher, the distillery’s new gin range. It’s fair to say that he is one happy client. “During the pitch process, [Green and Harkness] were the only ones who traveled down to Tasmania, met our distiller and understood the place we are from—and our brand is all about place. They got it, and got us,” he says. Tasked with disrupting the spirits category with a modern approach, Co Partnership designed a bold, graphic mark representing the surrounding mountains, meadows and ocean and used botanical illustrations printed on the inside of the back label to create a poetic snow-globe effect through the shoulder of the bottle.
After working with the firm on a number of other jobs, Logan describes Co Partnership’s work as nothing short of refreshing and completely unexpected. “It’s not derived from anything else; it stands out within the category, but yet, sits perfectly within it,” he says. “[Green and Harkness] spend quite a bit of time understanding what you want, then what the category is doing. Their work oozes personality and likability, and they are both the ultimate professionals, but are very different. Green is very funny, passionate and endearing. Harkness is measured, proactive and reassuring. They balance each other.”
When it came to rebranding Australia’s award-winning craft beer Modus Operandi, Co Partnership was in its element. The small, dedicated brewery wanted to switch from glass bottles to cans, at the time associated with cheap, inferior beer in Australia. But cans are more cost effective, lighter to transport and, most importantly, they keep the beer fresher. So Co Partnership came up with a brand positioning statement—“Beer first. No shortcuts”—designed a logo to reinforce it and applied an innovative random-labeling technique with a hand-crafted feel to sleek 500-milliliter cans resembling silver brewing kettles. Within twelve months of the new can hitting the fridges, sales for Modus Operandi tripled, and in 2016, the beer won gold for packaging at the Australian International Beer Awards. “When we do strategy for a brand, we try to find out what makes it unique, what its purpose is and what makes it stand apart,” says Green. “Before we start designing, we have a thorough strategic stage where we really uncover the thing we can hang our hat on in the design phase.”
In 2017, Co Partnership won first and second place at the Dieline Awards for its work on the wine labels The Underground Project and Friends of Friends. These followed its win at the Australian Graphic Design Association Design Awards in 2016, for which the whole team was brought on stage for its work on Mr Black’s limited edition Panama Geisha Coffee Liqueur, made from one of the world’s most expensive and rare coffee beans. For this project, the team drew inspiration from Panama’s distinctive cigar labels, represented in gold foil flourishes. As for the brand’s famous back label, Co Partnership commissioned United Kingdom–based artist Greg Coulton to illustrate Panama’s native spectacled owl, which strikingly reveals itself as the bottle empties.
Tom Baker, cofounder and managing director of Mr Black Spirits, was drawn to Co Partnership for its unconventional approach. “Co Partnership had produced a number of non-traditional, yet very punchy jobs for other liquor clients,” he says. “We found that many agencies we spoke with were a little too reliant on traditional cues of packaging design … Co Partnership crafts brands that are instantly credible. While some of this comes from its clients, you’re never left thinking, ‘Is this some virtual, made-up brand?’ with any of its work. Its style has a realness. You can feel the brand’s passion, craft and integrity with the work.”
Along with Harkness’s ability to make a mean coffee, Baker was also taken with Co Partnership’s down-to-earth attitude. “Harkness and Green are an energetic little duo without the shit. No agency gush. No unnecessary client service. A small team of hard-working, exceptionally friendly and talented designers that make stuff. A great blend of London art school and Australian no-bullshit sensibility.” Cheers to that, Co Partnership. ca